Book #31: Cloud Atlas

I just finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It was one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.

I was talking to one of my roommates about it the other day. She wanted me to tell her what it’s about, but she didn’t want me to tell her what happens, because she’s planning on reading it. I had to think for a minute. It’s one of those books that you can’t describe without saying what happens in it.

Finally, I had it.

“It’s like a matryoshka doll,” I told her. “But a really, really meta matryoshka doll.”Matryoshka Dolls

And it is. Cloud Atlas consists of six narratives. And you’re never sure which is the real narrative. Each narrative references the one before it, but in odd ways. For example, the journal entries of the man crossing the Pacific are read and referenced by a young composer in his letters to his friend.

The stories all connect in this way. Each narrative has a strong voice. You genuinely care about each character, and you want each story to be the “real” one. But you never know for sure which story is real. The stories are all nested inside each other, moving from earliest (1800s) to the latest (post-apocalypse) and then out again in reverse order. The largest chunk, the latest, timewise, is the only unbroken narrative.

It contains, then, all of the narratives in their different forms (movies, letters, books). Somehow they all connect to each other, but you can’t quite figure out how.

I guess there are some light spoilers here, because I want to get more specific. Beware if you’re planning on reading this or seeing the movie and don’t want to know things. I’ll leave space before my final thoughts and rating if you’ll kindly scroll down to the big line break.

River Song, Doctor Who, "Spoilers"

What struck me most about Cloud Atlas was the moment I realized that some of the stories might not be real. It was fine when the composer found Ewing’s journal. That sort of thing happens all the time, and the characters have to be connected somehow. It was fine when Louisa Rey read Frobisher’s letters. that sort of thing also happens.

BUT LOUISA REY IS A CHARACTER IN A BOOK! Does that mean that Frobisher’s letters aren’t real? And wouldn’t that mean that Ewing’s diary isn’t real too? They’re just fictions made up inside a different work of fiction that someone else is reading! Ahhh!

AND THEN (at this point I’m just rehashing plot, BUT STILL) CAVENDISH IS IN A MOVIE! I guess it could still be a movie based on his life but HOW DO WE KNOW?! And is Sonmi real, or is she actually just a religious figure? Which of these narratives is the “real” one? Is it Zachry’s, because it’s the only one that’s unbroken? Or is it Ewing’s, because it’s the only one that isn’t influenced by the other narratives? THERE’S NO WAY TO KNOW.

It’s fiction within fiction within fiction. It’s kind of a mindfuck, when you think about it.

And now I’ll leave space for anyone who wants to avoid these spoilers.

  • Anyway, I liked Cloud Atlas. It was different than I expected it to be. Some parts were really intense. Some parts I didn’t like so much. I’m not a fan of people writing in dialect, so I didn’t enjoy Zachry’s section. However, that was balanced out by the fact that I was super interested in the Louisa Rey mystery and Sonmi’s story. All in all, Cloud Atlas is a very strange matryoshka-doll book, and you should probably read it.

    Rating: ****
    Up Next: Fatelessness


    3 responses to this post.

    1. This sounds super interesting. Also they made a movie based on this SOMEHOW.

      Also also… what if we’re just characters in another book talking about the book Cloud Atlas which is full of other books…. it’s like a fractal book. whaaaat


    2. All of what Arta-twin said. Also I’m so proud of you for knowing the word matryoshka! ;) Also this book has been on my list for a LONG time.


      • Twin: There are lots of them in stores in Prague. I DEFINITELY know them.

        Arta-Twin: I want to see the movie too.

        And you should both read it. It’s pretty sweet.


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